A Book is Never Just a Book: Thoughts on Full, Frontal Feminism

Ignoring the differences of race between women and the implications of those differences presents the most serious threat to the mobilization of women’s joint power.
–Audre Lorde

Oh, dear.

Starting off with a quote from the overquoted Audre Lorde could backfire. I could be immediately disregarded as cliché, academic, or at best, trite.

I’ll risk it.

Lorde’s quote is the simple backbone to much of the flesh-cutting diatribe going on in the feminist blogosphere lately. The skin of it is Valenti’s book, Full Frontal Feminism, and in some arguments, Valenti herself. The jugular of the problem though, is feminism, inclusion, and the politics of difference.

I have read Valenti’s book and I’ve read the reviews. There are two things that FFF and certain reviews have in common: 1) there are some good points points 2)I am completely turned off by the tone and style of the writer

FFF is written from a mainstream feminist to young women about feminism. There. Simple enough. Well, it might be simple, but that is quite loaded. The problem can begin with the front cover. You don’t need to be a genius to know that putting a naked white hip and calling it Full Frontal Feminism is not going to attract some negative opinion.

The problem with the cover and the book is that it says it targets young women (“young,” I assume is late teen/very early 20s) and I found, frankly, it did little to address young women of color. “Even now, issues of race and class come up in feminism pretty often,” (10). Well, I just laughed out loud when I read that because race and class don’t just come up for women of color “pretty often,” it is their lived experience as human beings. Valenti breezes over this and even uses the Lorde quote when she talks about intersectionality.

Those aren’t just road blocks, they are serious, structural problems within the Movement, Feminism, Women’s Centers, academic programs, the workplace, on the street, in the media…you get the point. Valenti mentions this from time to time, referencing Sojourner Truth’s, “Ain’t I a Woman?” and mentioning racism exists throughout the waves. No elaboration, just dropping some pebbles. Some of the heavy duty issues like sexual assault, poverty, public policy, motherhood that Valenti brings up are never broken down to illustrate how women of color experience them differently. It’s brought up and told from a White perspective. “That’s not her fault!” cry the FFF fans. It’s not her “fault” but it certainly doesn’t apply to young WOC does it? Or it doesn’t acknowledge the different experience they may have with those issues. I think that’s pretty significant to know when trying to sell feminism to young women, especially, those of color.

Is it Valenti’s responsibility to go head first into this issue? I believe yes. The book is CALLED full, frontal feminism, so yes! What other place to discuss the pressing, urgent, undeniable exclusion of *other* women? Probably because it’s too serious. And heavy. Oh, everyone hates that combo. Such a drag.

Is Valenti responsible for speaking for others or women of color? Certainly not. I’m not looking for Valenti to pretend she has answers or have any other skin tone or background than what she has. I am, however, looking for leaders to step up and shake the racist tree of the Movement. Other issues are clearly detailed with personal accounts and stories to illustrate. Why not for issues of difference? Why not model to younger feminists how she experienced the Third Wave’s struggle in terms of racism? For anyone, Valenti or whomever, to leave it untouched or is like that old excuse White women professors used to give for not using WOC literature in Women’s Studies’ courses: they couldn’t teach it because they themselves are not people of color. (But, as Lorde points out, there are no problems teaching Shakespeare and other great works of men) Ok, so that translates into “progressive” or liberal feminists refusing to tackle issues of racist oppression because they’re White. Leave that for the colored women. Right.

Roaring reviews about disappointment came out followed by catty, non-linked accusations of the she said/she said, No I didn’t/Yes You did variety ensued. Some of the most disturbing trends were young women WOC who blogged their opinion about the book and getting whacked by a freight train of Valenti supporters and FFF Mean Girls.

Audre Lorde once wrote a letter to Mary Daly, a radical feminist theologian, about a book Daly had published. After Daly did not respond to her, Lorde opened it up publicly for discussion. Read, “An Open Letter to Mary Daly,” for details. What Lorde first privately and then publicly raises, is why in Gyn/Ecology does Daly not sufficiently explore African examples of goddesses? Why are all the images white and judeo-christian? Lorde tells herself that Daly probably narrowed her focus to deal solely with western European women. But, Daly does eventually expand in her book, poorly. And that is where Lorde takes off. She realizes that Daly interjects sporadic quotes and information to back up her assertions, but never fully recognizes or acknowledges the contributions of Black women and other women of color. She uses particles of the women of color experience to add a be-dazzler effect on her lens, but she never integrates them into her work.

These observances, publishings, and exchanges took place before I was born. And I unabashedly use the following to illustrate what is still occurring in the feminist literature canon and the blogosphere today:

What you excluded…dismissed my heritage and the heritage of all other noneuropean women, and denied the real connections that exist between all of us. It is obvious that you have done a tremendous amount of work for this book. But simply because so little material on non-white female power and symbol exists in white women’s words from a radical feminist perspective, to exclude this aspect of connection from even comment in your work is to deny the foundation of noneuropean female strength and power that nurtures each of our visions. It is to make a point by choice.

Note: is Lorde getting personal and name calling and labeling Daly a racist? No, she does something better: she gets critical with her WORK. She validates her engagment with a piece of literature by offering to the author and the world her experience. Lorde is a master of eloquent indignation. This is not about formality or jargon or the academic vibe. This is an example of a powerful woman using her voice to articulate her experience of racism by literary exclusion. Now, THAT is a feminist dialogue.

My personal reaction to the book deals with its content, marketing, and style; not with the author as a person. I found it light, at best, and skimming the feminist ocean of depth. I’m sure someone right now is saying, “But it’s not meant to be the academic, dry, serious crap. That’s what makes it so good!” Well, I happen to agree that it’s not meant to be those things, but delving deep into the consciousness of the Women’s Movement and explaining it to young women is hardly limited to theory, the academic and serious spheres. One can profoundly and radically explore with young women without being boring. On the contrary, the most fascinating and exciting feminist lessons are the ones that dig deep. It’s more than just trendy, it’s resonating.

I can see now that I am definitely not the target audience. That’s not a source of contention. I was misled, just like several other books I picked up and found, after the first chapter it was not written for me. What I have a problem with is what the book stands for and what it symbolizes. The book has a big feminist hat that says TOUR GUIDE and then frolics with young white women and splashes around in the shallow end of the ocean.

Valenti often utilizes the phrase, “in my opinion,” or a variation of that. Right on. The entire book is her opinion. The facts and figures, all current and legit, are funneled through yet another set of well-meaning eyes. The frequent focus on the “ugly” fear, appearance-oriented explanations, and rocking sex freedom tips is not full, frontal feminism. It’s Part of the Surface Feminism. Once again, race, class, and “intersectionality” is the the beloved frosting. It (frosting) is definitely a must-have, but too much of it ruins the enjoyment of the actual cake.

I am rather mystified that when a White woman claims a book she has written is not an end all, be all text and then the criticism confirms the claim, why a legion of defenders comes with swords. The book is being held at both extremes. It’s been called trash – which it’s not. It’s also been the called the greatest thing ever since sliced bread – which it’s not. It speaks from and to the naked White hip cover fans. There’s no crime there. There’s just no depth there either. And as she is entitled to write what she likes, so are reviewers! In the face of critical and substantial rhetoric, you gotta grow thick skin. Yup. Ya deal. And you fight back. You just don’t fight back by pandering to the lowest common denominator and silencing others because W-W-Wahhhh, some women don’t like my shero’s book. Hello – grow a vagina and check yourself.

If we’re going to make some – ANY – progress whatsoever, we must be doing better than this. “This” being: putting out feminist literature that implies a select audience within its target audience and then exploding over negative evaluations. In a nutshell, this book is for: somewhat confident white young women, mild to intensely curious about the Movement and can stand a lot of sexually explicit language, and who want a quick bumper sticker 411 about issues of difference among women.

FFF is not for anyone seriously struggling with their identity, or any form of religious, sexual, and political binaries. This is not for anyone who is Republican or even mildly conservative (given the I Don’t Fuck Republicans shirt references). It’s far left and contributes to the division between camps (given the “feminism isn’t for everybody” explanation). Any young women of color, anyone with ties and concerns with other countries outside the USA, especially developing nations, or if you have already experienced some form of discrimination and are looking for answers won’t find much haven here. Immigration, adoption, religion, family, mental illness, physical challenges, the deaf community…Leave these topical expectations at the door.

Valenti wrote a “love letter to feminism,” and just like love, we all have our own valid experiences and perspectives. But if this is the guiding love letter for young, marginalized women of difference about being in a feminist relationship, I’d probably advise to stay single and look elsewhere for companionship, in my opinion.

2 thoughts on “A Book is Never Just a Book: Thoughts on Full, Frontal Feminism

  1. Thorne

    Oh, bravo!!! I’d have to agree with my friend Susan, who sent me over. This is the single best post I have seen on this topic. I have read alot of passion, quite a bit of theory and moments of shining brilliance sparkling through the dust, but this one is a pure gem. Thank you!!!

  2. fiercelyfab

    I have added the book to my amazon wish list and will get around to reading it at one point.

    I read Grassroots from Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards two years ago, and of course there were good ideas/points in the text just as much as a disconnect big time to my lived reality.

    I pick up Borderlands, Massacre of the Dreamers from time to time because they do contain “ties and concerns with other countries outside the USA, especially developing nations, or if you have already experienced some form of discrimination and are looking for answers won’t find much haven here. Immigration, adoption, religion, family, mental illness, physical challenges, the deaf community”

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